If there’s a Wild Turkey expression that divides whiskey enthusiasts, it’s Kentucky Spirit. We can all agree that Wild Turkey 101 is a tremendous value – affordable, versatile, and readily available. The same could be said of Rare Breed in comparison to its competition, like Booker’s or Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. And few will argue that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel isn’t one of the best single-barrel bourbons produced by any Kentucky distillery. But Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit … you won’t find near as many vocal champions in 2020. Why is that?
First off, there will always exist a scale where Kentucky Spirit is weighed against Wild Turkey 101. After all, they’re the same bourbon recipe, chill filtered and bottled at 101 proof. The only major difference between the two (outside of packaging) is how they’re produced post maturation. Kentucky Spirit is a single-barrel expression, typically aged at least eight years (though officially non-age stated); Wild Turkey 101 is a non-age-stated batched expression, typically aged six to ten years per Eddie Russell. If you average Wild Turkey 101’s maturity, that places it head to head with the single-barrel Kentucky Spirit.
The beauty of a single barrel lies in its inherent uniqueness. This shines in particular at barrel proof. Unfortunately, there is no barrel-proof, single-barrel Wild Turkey expression (yet, right Campari? 😉 ). Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel comes close at 110 proof … close, but no cigar. Kentucky Spirit sees an additional nine points of dilution over Russell’s Reserve, yet maintains enough character to set individual barrels apart – especially in consideration of competition like Buffalo Trace and Elijah Craig private barrel selects (90 and 94 proof, respectively). Yet as unique as a particular barrel of Kentucky Spirit may be, is it always better than Wild Turkey 101? Not always.
Which brings me to the second reason you don’t hear many folks championing modern-day Kentucky Spirit – price. To say that Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit is a value at $65 would be stretching it. Sure, it’s comparable in retail price (sometimes cheaper) than highly sought after bottles like Rock Hill Farms and Blanton’s (more on that one later). But when the spec-superior Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel can be found for $65 or less (both standard retail and private selections), Kentucky Spirit struggles considerably in the value department.
Lastly, there’s the bottle design change that occurred in early 2019. While it had absolutely nothing to do with the actual bourbon being bottled, Kentucky Spirit’s 25th anniversary saw the introduction of a relatively simplistic design. Gone was Jimmy’s classic turkey tail feather glass and hand-written barrel info that consumers had known since the first bottle was filled in 1994. Some welcomed the change, but I think it’s more than fair to say that the grand majority of Wild Turkey fans took a punch to the gut. Nevertheless, true fans continued to purchase Kentucky Spirit, though probably not as often as the increasingly popular Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon.
This isn’t the first time I’ve placed Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit under the microscope. I’ve been candid in sharing my thoughts on the expression’s progression and overall direction on multiple occasions. Some have even considered past posts as negative towards the brand. I don’t think so. I love Wild Turkey. I’m just a fan speaking his mind. My opinion is no more or less significant than any other’s. Yet the question remains: Could Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit be improved? Absolutely, and it starts with appearances. But for now, let’s see how this 2016 bottle I recently received from a friend measures up. (Thanks again, Bryant.) Let’s pour!
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit – 101-proof KSBW – no age stated (reportedly at least eight years) – bottled 11/9/2016 from barrel #3253, warehouse G, rick #6 – distilled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: brilliant copper
Nose: (rich, modern WT) vanilla bean, caramel apple, honey-oak, brown sugar, nutmeg, sweet tea, hints of citrus & maple syrup
Taste: (notably oily) toasted caramel, English toffee, vanilla cola, charred oak, brown sugar, nutmeg, faint clove & orange peel
Finish: medium-long, sticky w/ lingering spice – peppery vanilla, caramel, sweet & spicy oak, cola, clove, chewing tobacco, leather
Overall: I’ll be damned if this isn’t one helluva “shelfer.” While not a private selection bottling, this 2016 Kentucky Spirit falls somewhere between Lincoln Road’s #2472 and Adam Acquistapace’s #651 (closer to Acquistapace’s, truthfully). In fact, I’d go so far as to say this bottle represents the ideal modern Wild Turkey single barrel – at least a Turkey barrel bottled at 101 proof. Even chill filtered, it practically sips like a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel bottling. (Not kidding.) The core bourbon notes are dense and structured (vanilla bean ice cream, flame-toasted caramel, mature oak) and the supporting spice and earthy notes offer more than enough character to place this whiskey a step above standard Wild Turkey 101. Exactly what I look for in a modern Kentucky Spirit … 101 with flair!
Rating: 4/5 🦃
This past week I gained a new perspective. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit may have fallen out of favor with some enthusiasts due to its occasional 101-comparable profile and unfortunate downgrade in packaging, but thankfully it hasn’t stooped to Blanton’s subpar quality level. Granted, Blanton’s packaging knocks it out of the park. Age International certainly appreciates their classic bottle design introduced by Elmer T. Lee in 1984. I’ll give them that. If only they appreciated the whiskey filling those bottles as much. One could always put forward the single barrel argument as a profile defense. I’d give that more credit if maturity wasn’t a blatantly apparent factor. As it stands, Blanton’s is now wholly uninspiring and youthful. I’d even call it “craft-like,” if it weren’t for the fact that some craft whiskey sips on par or better.
So here’s my two cents, Campari. If you’re going to keep Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit around, maybe go back and take a fresh look at Jimmy’s baby. Consider ditching the Rare Breed bottle. Step up the design game like you did with the Whiskey Barons collection and Longbranch. Let folks see the difference before they taste it and you might just reel in a larger audience. Above all else, never forget the reason why Kentucky Spirit was introduced in the first place – to compete directly with Blanton’s. You’re winning the flavor battle, but it doesn’t really matter if Kentucky Spirit sits on the shelf while Blanton’s is purchased well before.
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